Cubs aim to build around nucleus at Winter Meetings

Chapman, Fowler, Hammel among 'significant free agents,' Epstein says

Cubs aim to build around nucleus at Winter Meetings

CHICAGO -- Now that the Cubs have won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought in professional sports, what do they do for an encore? Could the Cubs be the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to repeat as champs?

The focus shifts to the 2017 season at baseball's Winter Meetings, which begin Monday at the Gaylord National Resort in Oxon Hill, Md.

Hot Stove Tracker

MLB.com and MLB Network will have wall-to-wall coverage of the 2016 Winter Meetings from the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center outside Washington, D.C. Fans can watch live streaming of all news conferences and manager availability on MLB.com, including the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 8 at 8 a.m. CT.

Since winning 103 games in the regular season, then advancing to the World Series and beating the Indians in a dramatic seven-game series, the Cubs have had more subtractions than additions to the roster. The Cubs declined to pick up Jason Hammel's option for '17, allowing the right-hander to become a free agent. Dexter Fowler rejected a qualifying offer and joined the list of free-agent outfielders. Closer Aroldis Chapman also is looking for a new team now that he's a free agent.

Offseason wish lists

What the Cubs do have -- and is the envy of other Major League teams -- is a solid core of young position players to build around, including National League Most Valuable Player Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez. The front office knew the free-agent market would be a little thin this offseason, which is why it did most of its shopping last winter, signing free agents Jason Heyward, John Lackey and Ben Zobrist.

"We're a young team and the nucleus is very much intact," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said during the General Managers Meetings earlier this month. "We have a couple of real significant free agents in Aroldis Chapman and Dexter Fowler and Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, but much of the nucleus is under control through 2020-2021. That's not something we're looking to break up. We're going to continue to build around that."

Epstein on Sporting News award

The primary focus this offseason will likely be the bullpen. Chapman and Wood join Joe Smith and Trevor Cahill on the list of free-agent relievers. With Chapman gone, the Cubs have to decide if they want Hector Rondon to return to the role of closer or go in a different direction. They could stay in-house and insert Carl Edwards Jr. into that role, although the Cubs will have to decide if the 25-year-old right-hander can handle the workload.

The Cubs' rotation posted the best ERA in the Major Leagues last season (2.96) and will miss Hammel, who won a career-high 15 games and totaled 166 2/3 innings. The in-house options to take his spot include lefties Mike Montgomery and Rob Zastryzny. Montgomery made five starts with the Cubs after he was acquired from the Mariners, while Zastryzny impressed the Cubs in his seven relief apperances. In 24 Minor League starts in '16, Zastryzny was 10-5 with a 4.31 ERA.

Zastryzny's relief appearance

Fowler's spot at the top of the lineup and in center field needs to be addressed. Before Fowler returned in '16, the Cubs planned to move Heyward to center. But after Tuesday's signing of Jon Jay, they could go with a platoon of Jay and Albert Almora Jr., giving Almora more time to ease into the job for the future. Zobrist, named the World Series MVP, could be an option as the leadoff man, too.

Heading into the Winter Meetings, the Cubs have $110.6 million in payroll committed to players, with Jake Arrieta, Rondon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm arbitration-eligible and in line to get raises.

Cubs fans are still euphoric over the World Series championship. Epstein wants more.

"We'd love to be the type of organization that national baseball fans think of when you think of October baseball -- the Braves, Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals," Epstein said. "We've got two [postseasons] in a row now and one championship. We'd like to be there every year if we can and take our shot. We're lucky to have a lot of talented young players, great manager, support ownership, terrific fan base as resources.

"We'd like to see how sustained we can make this success. Our fans deserve a long run if we can possibly do it."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.